By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Hans Christian Andersen’s influence on the fairy tale genre was profound. Although ‘The Snow Queen’, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘The Little Mermaid’, and ‘The Ugly Duckling’ have the ring of timeless fairy stories, they were all original tales written by the Danish storyteller in the mid-nineteenth century.
First published in 1844, ‘The Snow Queen’ (divided into seven parts) is perhaps the most celebrated of all of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. But what does this story mean? You can read ‘The Snow Queen’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis.
‘The Snow Queen’: summary
First, let’s begin with a brief plot summary of ‘The Snow Queen’. A hobgoblin has created a mirror which magnifies ugly and evil things, and shrinks good and pretty things. When hobgoblin’s associates took the mirror up into the sky to see what the angels looked like in it, it fell and smashed into millions of pieces.
Some of these pieces got into people’s eyes and distorted their view of the world; some pieces became windows; some pieces even made it into people’s hearts and turned those hearts as cold as ice. But many pieces were left scattered about the world.
Two small children – a boy, named Kay, and a girl, named Gerda – live as neighbours and love each other as if they were brother and sister. But one day, the Snow Queen appears outside Kay’s house and shortly after that, a piece of the hobgoblin’s magic mirror gets caught in his eye and reaches his heart, turning it to ice. Thereafter, he starts to behave badly towards Gerda and can only see the ugliness in things.
Kay takes his sledge into town, where the Snow Queen appears to him again and takes him under her wing, and they ride off on her sledge together. Gerda wonders what happened to Kay, fearing him dead. She throws her prized red shoes into the river as an offering, in the hope that Kay will come back in return.
But it doesn’t work, so Gerda gets in a boat and soon drifts out into the world beyond her home, where she meets an old lady who befriends her. Gerda talks to the flowers in the woman’s garden, in the hope that they will tell her where Kay is, but they speak to her in riddles.
Autumn comes, and Gerda continues on her way in the world. She meets a crow, who tells her that Kay is in the palace of a princess. But when Gerda travels to the palace, the prince is not Kay, although his appearance is similar. The prince and princess give Gerda a coach and warm coat, so she can continue her journey.
However, Gerda is captured by robbers, and taken to their castle. There she meets a little robber girl, whose doves tell Gerda that Kay was taken by the Snow Queen to her palace further north. The robber girl helps to free Gerda from the castle.
With the help of a reindeer, a Lapp woman (from Lapland) and a Finn woman (from Finland), Gerda travels north to the colder parts of Scandinavia, until she reaches the palace of the Snow Queen, where the Snow Queen has Kay under her spell. The only way to free him from it is to remove the shard of the magic mirror that has turned his heart to ice. Kay is nearly blue with cold, and it’s only the Snow Queen’s attention to him that keeps him from freezing.
The Snow Queen flies away to warmer countries, deserting Kay. Gerda turns up and recognises Kay instantly despite his changed appearance, but he sits still and cold and unresponsive. Upset, Gerda cries warm tears that drop onto the frozen Kay, and seep through to his heart, thawing it.
When Gerda sings a song they both know, he recognises her, and bursts into tears. His tears wash out the grain of glass from the magic mirror that was lodged in his eye, and he returns to his old self. Reunited, Gerda and Kay return home, growing up together and yet retaining their childlike innocence, as spring turns into summer.
‘The Snow Queen’: analysis
‘The Snow Queen’ is, fundamentally, a story about good and evil. But what is most noteworthy about this fairy tale – perhaps even more so than in Andersen’s other major fairy tales – is that the evil character at the centre of the story, namely the Snow Queen herself, doesn’t get her comeuppance at the end of the tale. Nor does the hobgoblin who created the mirror which allows Kay to be transformed in the first place.
One of the reasons why Andersen’s fairy stories have endured, perhaps, is that they have decidedly bittersweet ‘fairy-tale endings’: the good may end happily, but the bad don’t necessarily end unhappily. The Snow Queen isn’t heard of again after she flies off to warmer climes, abandoning poor Kay.
Of course, the mirror and the ice are loaded with symbolism and significance in the story. The mirror represents unhealthy cynicism which destroys youthful innocence: it’s significant that, when Kay becomes ‘infected’ with the grain of glass from the magic mirror, he wants to go off and play with the older boys, suggesting that wide-eyed wonder and childhood innocence are being replaced by surly adolescence, which involves disrespecting the kindly grandmother who reads stories to him and Gerda, and neglecting Gerda herself.
But the glass doesn’t infect everyone: Gerda is able to retain her innocence even as she grows up, as is Kay once he is saved by Gerda. By the same token, Kay’s cynicism isn’t his own fault: it’s just his rotten luck that the grain of the mirror gets caught in his eye.
This suggests that a person’s individual circumstances shape their views and their personalities, and that they aren’t necessarily to ‘blame’ for how they behave. But they can be cured of it, if they are shown love by their friends and those close to them.
This, of course, is what the tears that Gerda sheds over the frozen body of Kay represent. They spring from genuine sadness that she has lost him, and their warmth is enough to thaw his icy heart and bring him back.
Here, the gender roles are noteworthy: unlike ‘Sleeping Beauty’ or ‘Snow White’, it’s not a male character saving and waking a female character, but a heroine who rescues her male friend from the stasis (death?) he has been condemned to by the evil witch character (i.e. the Snow Queen).
But what does love triumph over in ‘The Snow Queen’? ‘Cold reason’ might be one answer. When Kay is ‘infected’ by the grain of glass from the magic mirror, he does lose the ability to see the beauty in everything around him. But seeing a worm in the rose when there is one isn’t nasty cynicism: it’s just realism.
The problem stems from losing all appreciation of the rose’s beauty, but blind romanticism and idealism are just as flawed (and arguably, just as dangerous). Nor is there anything wrong with being fond of maths (another ‘skill’ Kay picks up following his encounter with the mote of glass).
Yet this isn’t how Andersen intends to analyse or scrutinise his tale: he clearly was a Romantic who was unhappy with the way the world really was and felt that love and beauty should triumph over intellectualism and rationalism.
If the ultimate message of the fairy tale, when reduced to its core elements, is trite (love and beauty triumph over scientism and realism; love, if you will, conquers all), and if that message even rings a little hollow to those of us who have spent a little time in the ‘real world’, then such flaws are easily swept away by the captivating beauty of the tale itself, with its use of icy landscapes, clear and powerful symbolism (the mirror, the tears, the snow and ice itself), and refusal to follow the ‘prince + peasant girl = marriage’ formula beloved of many writers of fairy tales.
‘The Snow Queen’ is often regarded as a precursor to, and major influence on, the 2013 hit animated film Frozen. But although the film followed Andersen’s tale in the early stages of the movie’s development, the two narratives and characters ended up being very different.
Nevertheless, the influence of ‘The Snow Queen’ can be seen in many works of children’s literature: the Snow Queen’s temptation of Kay almost certainly influenced C. S. Lewis, whose White Witch similarly tempts Edmund away from the other children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (Both Andersen’s Snow Queen and Lewis’s White Witch appear arrive into a snowy world and wear an inviting warm fur coat.)
And Lyra’s voyage to the frozen north to find her male friend and brother-in-all-but name, Roger, in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights echoes the journey that Gerda makes in Andersen’s fairy tale. Both Lyra and Gerda convince adults to help them in their quest through being kind and generous, so others feel compelled to help them in their pure quest to find their friend.
Curiously, and by way of conclusion, it’s worth noting a bit of biographical interest. Andersen may have been inspired to create the figure of the Snow Queen after the noted Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, with whom Andersen became infatuated, rejected his advances. Andersen became Kay, the innocent boy who was ‘led on’ by the beautiful and bewitching, but ultimately cold, Snow Queen who reels the hapless boy in only to desert him once she has stolen his heart.
This was always one of my favourite stories. Thank you for the excellent analysis here.
It’s so multi-layered, isn’t it? Thanks for the comment – it was fun analysing this one :)